How To
Float Those Rings And Things

Photos © 1998, Bob Coates, All Rights Reserved

For those times when you want to isolate an object with a pleasing non-competing background, here is a system that will give you lots of options. It worked especially well when a client asked me to photograph individual pieces of jewelry to illustrate "care cards." That's my name for business size cards illustrated with single pieces of jewelry accompanied by instructions on the care and feeding of each piece. Using this system will allow you to highlight any object from flowers to nuts and bolts. It can also be used for any size object, limited only by the size of the watercolor paper, which is what I use to form the background.

Depending upon your need to use this effect, you can make a permanent shooting box or use white foamcore to make a temporary shooting area. The base needs to be large enough to hold a flash head with a colored gel filter holder. Mine is a four-sided box (bottom with three vertical sides) made with 1/2" wood covered with a matte finished white Formica which helps reflect light. The box measures 15x18x18 with the front and top open. A nice plus is that this box can double as a shooting stage with high reflectivity for small product shots.

Next, you need a support to "float" your object. I used a 3/16" threaded rod that's available at hardware stores in 36" lengths. I cut the rod to 30", then tapered two sides to keep it from showing since I was dealing with thin shanks on rings. I twisted the other end into a hole that I drilled into a small length of 2x4. This forms the base to hold up the rod.

Create the background by using a lightweight watercolor paper or any translucent paper that will take watercolors. Spread a wash of black watercolor paint in a cloud-like design or another pattern of your choice. A method that worked well for me was to wet the paper thoroughly, then drip the black watercolor paint while tilting the paper in different directions. The pattern doesn't have to look perfect since it will be out of focus due to the use of a shallow depth of field. Suspend this background paper over the flash head and under your object. For these photos, the paper was 15" from the bottom and the jewelry 14" above the sheet. Before putting the paper on the rod, punch a 3/16" hole in the center. Attach the background paper to a matte board with a window to keep the paper flat. Some foamcore strips can be placed across the top of the box to support the matte board. Don't try to force the paper on the rod or the paper might tear.

Mounting the object to be photographed can be a bit tricky. The use of modeling wax is essential. I used Boekel Tackiwax. Since this product is reusable, you can get close to a lifetime supply for about $10 from Calumet Photographic. Put a tiny bit of wax on the bottom of your object and place it on top of the rod. With larger or flexible items, cut a piece of foamcore slightly smaller and mount it on the rod for extra support. Getting everything to balance can take a bit of patience.

Now you're ready to light the setup. Place a flash head in the box facing up and add a colored gel filter. Be careful that your filter doesn't bow and lay on the modeling light. You may have to build a spacer for the gel. I've found Rosco filters (available from Calumet) to be fairly pastel. If you are looking for juicier color with more punch, use Bogen Cine filters vivid colors. Light your object as you normally would with the other heads and reflector cards. Keep these lights from shining directly on the watercolor paper. I use a Novatron 1600 power pack with four heads. I set the variable power pack to 400ws and added a Nikon SB21 ringlight to light the jewelry shown.

Position the camera over the jewelry at a slight angle so the rod is hidden underneath. For this type of photography, a macro lens works best. If you don't have a macro lens, try extension tubes or supplementary lenses to get you in closer. You can get an idea of the current effect by using your depth of field preview button.

The really nice thing about this system is its incredible versatility. Different effects can be obtained by changing the distance of the object to the paper or of the camera to the subject, the color or type of filter, the thickness of the paper or design painted on it, the aperture set or the distance of the flash head to the paper. This setup calls for lots of experimentation, so experiment.


Bogen Photo Corp.
565 E. Crescent Ave.
Ramsey, NJ 07446
(201) 818-9500
fax: (201) 818-9177

Calumet Photographic Products
890 Supreme Dr.
Bensenville, IL 60106
(888) 888-9083
(888) 367-2781
(800) 225-8638
(630) 860-7447
fax: (800) 577-3686